Build-A-Song Part IV: Cadence

by Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, April 2000
This is the fourth in a series of articles called Build-A-Song which presents a step-by-step method for creating a song. By no means is this "the only" method for writing songs. In fact, the approaches to songwriting are as many as the writers themselves. But our Build-A-Song series will offer a sequential template for covering the basics of successful songwriting. I hope you will follow along and perhaps even try this method as you create your own.

Part 4 -- Cadence and the Beginning of the Melody

The music begins and the skaters move out on the ice -- floating, soaring, leaping with such ease and grace that it seems each movement is simply a spontaneous response to the emotion of the music. And in the magic of that moment, the spectators also are caught up into the emotion -- mesmerized by the fluid elegance of mobility and music.

Reality, however, tells us that such magic moments on the ice do not "just happen." They are the end result of hours, weeks, months and even years of dedicated practice and very specifically choreographed gymnastic motions. Average spectators can't really tell the difference between a "triple toe loop" and a "triple lutz." All they know is that these skaters are "effortlessly" interpreting the music with each movement. But believe me -- every good ice skater thoroughly understands the differences in the moves and the techniques required for each spin or leap. The bottom line is simply that what appears so natural and spontaneous in performance is the culmination of a heck of a lot of hard work!

The same is true about songwriting. The songwriter's goal is to create a 3-4 minute song that sounds on the radio as if the singer is simply pouring out his/her heart spontaneously to the music. But that goal does not "just happen" either. Like the ice skaters described above, the songwriter must be willing to meticulously perfect every detail to achieve the "natural" end result that will captivate the audience and carry them along into the emotion of the song. Just as the spectators in the ice skating performance, most radio listeners will not be aware of the techniques and rules that are being followed -- nor should they be. If the tools are used expertly, they will be noticed and appreciated only by other professionals in the art.

In our last Build-A-Song session we discussed the importance of Freeflow -- assembling every idea, concept or thought that might relate to the core Idea of the song and its Hook. We also began to develop what I call the Hook Statement -- that completed sentence that includes the Hook/Title and fleshes out the main thought of the song. This is the destination -- that one main point -- that we hope to make with the song. We also introduced the importance of Cadence in crafting the Hook Statement. Cadence is one of the first crafting components we encounter in creating a song and is -- in my opinion -- one of the most crucial, so I want to enlarge upon the concept here before we continue to build our song.

Songs have four major components: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Lyrics. The Melody and Harmony comprise the music of the song -- the Lyrics are the words. But the Rhythm or Cadence is where the beat of the music meets the rhythm or flow of language sounds. In his book, Tunesmith, hit songwriter Jimmy Webb puts it this way: I define Cadence simply as the meeting point between the notes and the words -- where words stop being just words and the music stops being just notes and something new is conceived -- a song is born. If the Great Idea and the Hook comprise the thesis statement of the song, the Cadence is its attitude or body language. Cadence must be established in such a way that the words sound natural, conversational and uncontrived. Lyrics should follow the rhythm of natural, contemporary, conversational speech and yet also follow a musical rhythm.

Last time I demonstrated the concept of Cadence from one of my own songs called Sticks and Stones. The Idea or focus of the song was the issue of verbal abuse of children and for the Hook/Title we used a phrase from the familiar children's verse:
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me
In crafting the Hook Statement, I kept to the Cadence of the original children's rhyme but changed the words to show that words definitely can and do hurt us -- especially as children. My Hook Statement became:
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words hurt me much deeper….
This phrase summarized in one sentence the core concept of the Song Idea and its Hook/Title. It also created a lyric rhythm that was identical to the original children's couplet. We could diagram the Cadence or rhythm of the Hook Statement as follows ("/" indicating a stressed syllable and "-" indicating an unstressed syllable):
/- - -/- - -/- - - /-    Sticks and stones may break my bones but words hurt me much deeper
Just having this much as a "destination" for the song, I began to see that this would probably become a Verse-Chorus Song with each verse "arriving" at this conclusion in the Chorus.

My next task was to "flesh out" the core concept with some other words and phrases that would support the main point of the song and make a strong Chorus. I followed the Hook Statement with two shorter lines to show how the harm caused by words is often concealed by the victim:
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words hurt me much deeper
More than you'll ever know
More than I'll ever show
Using these lines as a guide, I finished off the Chorus by creating a second half -- duplicating the Cadence I had already established and the Rhyme Pattern that was developing. Here is the completed Chorus (I have written the lines to show where the rhymes fall):
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words hurt me much deeper
More than you'll ever know
More than I'll ever show


Wounds from words
Cannot be cured
By medical procedure
They cut into the heart
And leave a deeper scar
Than sticks and stones
Sticks and Stones
Lyrics: Mary Dawson
Music: Bruce Greer
Copyright © 1992 / CQK Music
ASCAP / Admin. Music Services, Nashville
Used by Permission


Notice that both halves of this chorus have identical meter or Cadence:
/---/---/---/- Sticks and stones may break my bones but words hurt me much deeper
---/--         More than you'll ever know
---/--         More than I'll ever show
/---/---/---/- Wounds from words cannot be cured by medical procedure
---/--         They cut into the heart
---/--         And leave a deeper scar
---/           Than sticks and stones
We now have enough content with a definite Cadence to begin thinking about a Melody. As we repeat the words to the Cadence, a melodic rhythm is also being established and we can begin to experiment with some notes to capture the meaning and conversational pulse of the words. It is extremely important at this point to be sure that the Musical Cadence matches the Lyrical Cadence so that words do not have to be manipulated or contorted to fit. If a Melody does not come easily at this point, don't be discouraged. Just keep repeating the lyrics in their Cadence until the lyrical rhythm is engrained in your mind. The Cadence will begin to give rise to several melodic sequences that you may consider. Be sure to tape whatever comes to mind -- even if you have to sing your ideas a cappella into a tape recorder. When you find a sequence that is as memorable as the lyrical Hook/Title, you will have a completed Song Hook -- lyrics and music "wedded" into the most memorable line of the song.

In our next session we will examine the elements of creating melody. Whether you can read music or not, you can learn to create hit melodies which -- fused with the lyrics through Cadence -- will pass what songwriters Kasha and Hirschhorn call the "whistle test," that one line that is impossible to forget and that you find yourself whistling long after the song is over.

You are now "elbow deep" in the songcrafting process. As with our ice skaters, there will be falls, bruises, cross-outs, re-writes, pages of words and tapes that you will allow NO ONE but yourself to hear! Think of it as perfecting the "triple lutz" -- all the starts and stops and falls will eventually result in something so graceful and effortless that your listeners will think it just flows!


1 Webb, Jimmy, Tunesmith, p.51, New York, Hyperion, 1998.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet, and is the only on-air songwriting workshop either on radio or the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®, and is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area. You can reach Mary at: mary@cqkmusic.com

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